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Tips on Using Blender for Concept Art

Nina Leinwatter has shared her experience and thoughts on the Environment Design Mentorship course, talked about the story behind the Gates of the Underworld project, and gave some useful tips on asset creation, rendering, and lighting in Blender.

Introduction

My Name is Nina Leinwatter, I am from Vienna, Austria. After I got my high school diploma in graphic design and fashion, I was studying Game Art and 3D Animation at the SAE Institute in Vienna. Then I started to focus on my portfolio and figured out what field of digital art I want to work in later on.

I was taking courses such as Keyframe Illustration for Production by Ricardo Lima, Concept Art for Film by Jama Jurabaev, and Environment Design Mentorship by Sathish Kumar. They all helped me a lot to choose my path and connect with people from the industry.

Since many of the projects I have worked on are still not released yet, I am not allowed to talk about them. But in my 3 years of working in the industry, I have worked for companies like Render Imagination, Volta, Share Creators, Mood Visuals, Porsche, and some smaller indie game productions. The projects were a mixture of AAA games, movies, and TV shows.

Production

I started taking the Environment Design Mentorship with Sathish Kumar and therefore we all had to come up with a project that pushes our boundaries. I always struggled with the design aspects of my projects so I challenged myself by going for a topic where I have to come up with my own unique designs. 

The Story

Greek mythology has always fascinated me. I loved Hercules when I was a kid (and still do) and the underworld of Hades was my favorite part of the story. When I was looking for a topic, my boyfriend brought the great idea to get inspired by the whole mythology. So I started listening to all the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses.

They were all great, but Psyche's story caught my attention the most. The fact that it was about this innocent girl, ready to go through the underworld and even risk her own death for this minimal chance to win back her beloved Eros, inspired me a lot.

I wanted to catch these emotions. The fear, the uncertainties but also her determination and courage to do this final task, given by Aphrodite. I started gathering all kinds of references. The greek architecture, the pillar types, clothing, statues, and also fine art paintings from the mythologies helped me a lot to get a feel for it. Also, I watched Disney's Hercules again and had a closer look at their design choices and what shots they took to emphasize the underworld.

Asset Creation

The Pillar

Following all the mythologies, the underworld is full of dead souls who are doomed to a single task for eternity. That was the main inspiration for the pillars in my first shot. It's about the souls who are forced to carry the weight of the underworld on their shoulders. After I sketched out different shape designs, I went into 3D and started building them!

I started by creating a basic pillar shape. Then I went to Character Creator to get the pose for the statue. I also used Marvelous Designer to create some sort of chiton. Since you always try to be as fast and efficient as you can as a concept artist, I use kitbash whenever I can to speed up my workflow. 

In this case, I found an awesome horror pack by Dystopia Interactive. They have some cool sculpted body parts which you can use to get this horror look.

So I bashed it onto my existing model and sculpted it on top of it to make it unique. After that, I added elements that visualize the story of those pillars like damaged, cracked stone, shackles, and some greek ornaments which I made with IMM and Curve Brushes.

The details of the dead bodies on the bottom are not sculpted directly onto the pillar. I found a very cool base of this on the internet, changed it, and placed it where I wanted it to be.

The Gate

The Gate was done the same way as the Pillars. I just sculpted the base in ZBrush and added some details to make it look old and more realistic. I was creating alpha in Photoshop to get those Details on the door. For this, I just screengrabbed my model from the Viewport, put it in Photoshop, and drew the pattern (with mirroring on) until I got the results I wanted. Then I saved it as a black and white image and imported it as an alpha in ZBrush, and done!

For the ornaments, I used IMM Brushes again. I found the statues on Sketchfab and decided to add them since they fit perfectly into my scene.

The Dead Bodies

They were super easy to do – I just took a skeleton base mesh and posed it in a few different poses. To make each one look unique, I took the horror pack again and replaced some body parts, so they became a mixture between bones and flesh. Then I placed them around in my scene. I always made sure to have big, medium, and small shapes so I also created sets of smaller skulls and bones.

The Scale of the Scene

To make this whole scene look giant and intimidating I did not only use the scale of the pillars in comparison to the character as a way to show it but also camera settings and lighting.

To get a sense of scale in a movie shot, they often use long lenses to have the real-world scale in the frame. It makes the whole thing kind of flat but that's what I love about it, to be honest. It gives the image a graphical look. In the following example, I'll show you how this would look with a wider lens (35mm). You get more depth but lose the real scale because the wider you go, the more it distorts the objects.

The light also matters. If you have an object in the scene that is supposed to look giant, you can simply highlight a few parts that you want to emphasize and then let the rest fade to a darker value. Maybe add some volumetrics as well to make it disappear in the distance. Volumetrics also help to give it this atmospheric desaturated look which is great for indicating scale and distance!

Character Pipeline

For my characters, I usually have the same pipeline in every project. I use Character Creator a lot to get my Base done. The SkinGen plugin made a big difference for me because it gave them a super realistic look compared to Daz 3D and other providers.

I normally spend some time inside Character Creator to bring my character as close as I can and then move on to Marvelous Designer. This program also became my absolute favorite when it comes to clothing and fabric simulation. Because I was learning how to sew and draw my own cutting pattern, I was excited to be able to do it digitally.

I don't do it all from scratch every time. Marvelous Designer makes it possible to save your patterns and clothes into your personal library so I have collected a lot of self-made and purchased clothes over time.

For Psyche, I was jumping into ZBrush after finishing simulating her dress because I had something very specific in mind and also needed to create her jewelry.

After I was done with her look, I moved on to the textures. In terms of skin, I had a good base because of Character Creator which I didn't really have to tweak. Only the golden makeup on her face was added on top.

For the rest, I usually use Substance 3D Painter or I'm setting up the shaders directly in Blender.

I really have to mention this great plugin that fastened my Blender/Substance 3D Painter workflow a lot. It is called Substance Painter Live Link by Xolotl Studio. With this live link I can have my model in Blender and send it with one click to SP, then edit my textures and simply update the model in Blender to see how it looks in my final render.

This way you don't have these steps in between where you have to save your textures and assign them in Blender. A huge time saver! With this tool, I was jumping back and forth texturing her skin details like the golden stripe and the little dots on her face.

Also, the blood on her cape which you can see in the shot below was simply a paint layer in Substance 3D Painter. I painted blood on the parts that would've gotten wet when she got out of the boat.

For her eyes, I have built a shader in Blender.

Rendering and Lighting

For the whole setup, I tried to stay as close as possible to my initial sketch. This is something that I feel is super important. To match the sketch, I created a reference image plane in Blender and placed it right in front of the camera. This way I can easily match my initial composition and lighting.

For the mood and the lighting in general I started off with volumetrics. This creates a very moody base for the scene. I usually light my scenes with area and spotlights because I feel like they give me a lot of control but in addition to that, I started using a technique that really helped me get these results.

For this technique, I have used a spotlight to light a part of the pillar. In the shader editor, I added a texture image with a reference that has the colors and light/dark values I want. In this case, I have used a shot from King Arthur as it fits exactly the mood I wanted to create.

It is important to have a mapping note attached and play around with the location values first in order to see results. Adding a value node helps to increase or decrease the scale of the value variations.

For the dark and bright areas, I mainly focused on readability. Shapes are very important when it comes to this so I made sure to either have them dark with a bright background or the other way around. On the parts where I don't want much attention, I let the shapes fade into the background value. This is a good way to lead the eye, by creating contrast where we want the viewer to look.

Conclusion

This project took me about 4 weeks to complete. In the mentorship, we had the first 5 weeks focusing on our 2D skills. Then we had to come up with some ideas and pitch them to Sathish, our mentor. After that, he gave us a deadline and we started creating our project with updates and meet-ups every weekend.

The main challenge for me was to stay free in my mind. I didn't want to produce what's already existing on ArtStation. It was important for me to get as much inspiration from the real world instead of other artworks and I think this was the key to designing a world that you want to explore more and dive deeper into. Something you don't see every day.

At this point, I want to thank Sathish Kumar again for being a great mentor and friend during that time. Without him, I would have never stepped out of my comfort zone like I did, not only with my project but also as an artist. I learned a lot during those weeks about how to grow as an artist and also as a person. I am truly thankful for this experience. I can absolutely recommend this course to every single artist out there.

If you enjoy my art, feel free to follow me for updates on ArtStation or Instagram.

Nina Leinwatter, Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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